Weekend wisdom 4: perfectionism meets comparison
Posted On 13 July 2019
A weekly review of things that came through my inbox that I found interesting and want to remember.
Perfectionism has been the major theme in the things that have caught my eye over the last couple of weeks and I think I’m calling an uneasy truce with it now that I’ve come to understand what it is. After much thinking and writing, I thought I was done with it and that it was time to move on to other things that were grabbing my attention. To put it in the words of a friend who I’d been talking about this with recently, I thought I had kicked that shit to the kerb.
But perfectionism isn’t done with me yet and so the lessons keep coming. It’s probably good that they do, because I don’t think you ever truly “recover” from perfectionism. You have to constantly be on your guard that its voice doesn’t start speaking to you again and that, if it does, you don’t start listening to it. And one way of doing that is to have the message that perfect is the enemy of the good (or done is better than perfect, whichever way you want to look at it) constantly reinforced because reinforcement is how the old pattern of perfectionist thinking got entrenched in the first place.
So, the first thing on Monday morning I saw was this article by Lisa Byrne on perfectionism, in which she says that she sees perfection as being the opposite of excellence. This rang a bell with me because I see my pursuit of perfection as a misguided pursuit of excellence. That is, where I thought I was seeking perfection I was really seeking excellence. I’m still processing my thoughts on this so that might not make too much sense, but I was interested to see what Lisa had to say.
Lisa says that perfectionism leads us to compare ourselves with somebody else (real or imagined) and that when we do this we’ll always come up short because we are not them. (There’s a theme emerging in these posts, isn’t there?)
In her post, Lisa writes of an interview she did with the shame researcher Brené Brown. Brené observed that we are all unique. We’re made up of different parts and we’re all many different things: mother, father, sister, brother, partner, worker, volunteer, writer, gardener, cook, artist, singer, teacher . . . whatever we are. There is no exact replica of us in the world and, therefore, no one to directly compare ourselves to. So instead, Brené says, she (we) (I) compares one part of herself to the “perfect” version of that part. So she might compare her writing to the World’s Best Writer’s work, her volunteer work to Mother Teresa’s work, her research to the World’s Best Researcher’s work, and her photography to the work of the Artistic Genius I referred to last week (no, she doesn’t, that’s what I do . . .).
And guess what? She concludes that she’s falling short in every area of her life because she compares each individual part of her life with the “top” parts of several different people’s lives.
The “comparee” might be a full-time artist who has spent their whole life learning their craft, and has been doing it 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for the last 25 years. They might have devoted their entire life to the service of others. They might be at home full-time with their kids . . . and so it goes . . .
And hopefully you begin to see that you can’t be the Artistic Genius AND the World’s Best Researcher AND Mother Teresa AND the Gardening Guru AND be home looking after the kids all day because you don’t have 48 hours in a day or 14 days in a week to put in as much effort to each one of those things that you’d need to put in to reach the standard of one of those people in one of those areas. Even if you never slept, you wouldn’t be able to achieve at the level of all of those people in all of those things.
This reminded me of a time I was reading blogs about whole foods and trying to eliminate as much processed junk as I could. I thought I was doing pretty well until I read an article from a homemaker blogger, who said she milled her own flour because flour starts to go bad as soon as it’s milled and the fresher it is, the better.
My first thought was: Are you fucking kidding me? I make my own chicken stock, I am learning to bake bread, I buy hyper-expensive organic yogurt, I don’t buy packet sauces or tinned baked beans or frozen meals anymore, and I have my own chickens and now you’re telling me I have to Mill. My. Own. Flour.
At the time, I felt hopelessly inadequate beside this “homesteader”, who did absolutely everything from scratch, and wondered why I was bothering even trying because I could never achieve this level of food nirvana.
This week, as I reflected on how that had played out, I thought, hang on, if Brené Brown, world-renowned researcher and author, is comparing herself to others and finding herself falling short, then what hope is there for me in getting off the comparison hamster wheel?
And it hit me that maybe there isn’t. No matter how skilled I get at something, there will always be someone who is “better” than me, who knows more than me and who has been doing it longer. If I reach a level that I consider equal to theirs, then they will have moved forward too and I’ll still feel inadequate in comparison.
Comparison is a game we can’t win because the goalposts are always moving. Therefore, it’s a game that isn’t worth playing.
It’s a trap.
We compare ourselves unfavourably to other people because we’re comparing one part of ourselves to the only part of them that we see. When Brené Brown compares herself to the World’s Best Researcher or Barb compares herself to the Artistic Genius or the Homesteader Blogger, Brené and Barb are always going to feel inferior because they’re comparing a small part of their identities to what they perceive as being the whole of that person’s identity—that is, the part of that person’s identity that they show in public. (That was the only time I’m ever going to be mentioned in the same sentence as Brené Brown, so let’s just take that in for a moment . . . )
And you know what, if Brené thinks she comes up short against World’s Greatest Researcher, then I bet that the people I look up to have moments where they feel inadequate compared to someone else too. After all, they are human too. Homemaker Blogger might look at Artistic Genius the same way I do and feel like giving up her art because it’s not as good as theirs. World’s Best Researcher might look at Homemaker Blogger and feel terrible about their own food endeavours. Hell, Artistic Genius might sometimes feel totally incompetent in their own field because they aren’t Van Gogh or Ansel Adams. But they’re still in the same comparison trap that I’m in. They’re comparing their whole self with only a part of the other person’s identity.
One of my favourite expressions about this is that you can’t compare your cutting room floor footage with someone else’s highlight reel (thanks, Kendra). We don’t see the crap that the “comparees” made first, the struggle they’ve gone through to produce what they show us, the things that went wrong. We only see the finished product. We also don’t see the World’s Best Researcher pop in to Macca’s for drive-through on the way home every second night because they don’t have time to make dinner. We don’t see Homemaker Blogger’s pile of unfinished art and we don’t see Artistic Genius’s overgrown garden.
And that’s the way I have to deal with these comparisons whenever I hear that nagging little voice in my head tell me that what I’m doing isn’t as good as what . . . is doing.
So, after the initial guilt for using potentially tainted flour had worn off, I told myself that Homemaker Blogger devotes her entire life to raising her family, making a home and preparing the absolute best food she can. I am not this person, I am nothing like this person and my life is nothing like hers. For a start, I work outside the house. I have to, to pay for it. Therefore, doing home stuff is a much smaller part of my life than it is of hers. Just like I have less time to spend on my art than the Artistic Genius has and Brené has less time to volunteer than Mother Teresa did.
So rather than looking at World’s Greatest Researcher or Artistic Genius and thinking I’m useless in comparison and feeling deflated and defeated, I need to learn to acknowledge that someone else’s personal best is their personal best, not mine and that I should be striving for my personal best from the place I’m at, not that person’s personal best.
Rather than allowing it to make me feel inadequate, I can then use comparison as a motivation to do my own work and to get better. To shine my own light, not someone else’s. I can look at what it is I like about what they do and see if there’s something there that I can learn from. Perhaps I can buy better quality flour in smaller quantities and store it differently. If like the way the light falls in this artwork, maybe I can look for opportunities to incorporate that into my work. When I noticed that a writer has used words that flow with a certain rhythm, I can experiment with doing this and see if it works for me.
Comparison is a two-edged sword. When it inspires you and moves you forward, it’s a useful tool. When it deflates and demotivates you, it’s time to stop. Get off social media, stop reading blogs, take a break and focus on your own work. Forget about what everyone else is doing and go out and do what makes you happy.
And stop I will because that’s long enough to spend on one article from my inbox (which, incidentally, is still not at zero).
I had a couple of other strong messages grab my attention too this week. First, was an article from James Clear called Stop Thinking and Start Doing: The Power of Practicing More, which is a great reminder that you don’t get better at something by reading about it and thinking about it; you get better at it by doing it. The second theme that I saw in a couple of places was the importance of learning, which at first seems to contradict the message in James’ article, but this wasn’t as much about learning new skills as it was about broadening your world view through reading, exploring new ideas and getting out of your comfort zone. Here’s one of them by photographer David DuChemin, The Greatest Misconceptions in Photography.